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.
Paul has been speaking about the Jews and the practice of circumcision. His conclusions are fourfold; that the essence of being a truly religious man is not found in something outward but it is inward and invisible. Again he says that true circumcision is of the heart not the flesh; that true circumcision is effected by the Spirit, not the law, and finally that true circumcision wins the approval of God, not the approval of a nation or of men.
Of course Paul said these things when he entered a new town on his missionary journeys, making his first port of call the Jewish synagogue. He attended and spoke there as long as he could, teaching, explaining, opening up the Old Testament, telling them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and then gathering around him those who were persuaded, teaching them personally and in depth.
There would be synagogue objections. At the beginning of the third chapter of this epistle Paul is reechoing synagogue evangelism, the arguments that he’d heard so often in many gatherings of the Jews. A heckler objects to what Paul is saying, and he is no straw man. Paul knew well those kinds of objections to the claims of Christ because once he himself, Saul of Tarsus had believed all this as a Hebrew of the Hebrews. So what we have here is in effect an encounter between his old man, the unconverted Saul of Tarsus the Pharisee who was now quite dead, and the new man he’d become on the road to Damascus, Paul the apostle of Jehovah Jesus.
So, I say, a Pharisee in the synagogue would raise the question, “Paul, answer us, ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?’ (v.1). You are saying that today there are no longer fundamental differences between Jews and Gentiles. You are teaching us that having the law of God and circumcision will not in themselves guarantee our immunity from the judgment of God. But what of the covenant that Jehovah made with Abraham? What of God’s promises and God’s character? Are you saying that there is no advantage at all from being a Jew, and that there is nothing to be gained from being circumcised? Such things, you’re preaching to us today, don’t protect us from the judgment of God.” That is where we are in this letter, and the mighty chapter before us supplies us with the substance of Paul’s answer to the Jews in the synagogue, and certainly how he began to reply to the heckler.
The more comprehensive list is to come later on in the letter. Here he just suggests there is more than one answer to this question, “Do the Jews have an edge?” by replying, “Much in ever way!” But he seems to be giving us slim pickings by way of an answer here. The question, you remember, is that if what Paul is saying is right then what possible advantage can there be in being religious. I’ve just pointed out that it is later in chapter 9 that Paul gives a fuller reply concerning the advantages of being an Old Testament Jew: “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, for ever praised! Amen.” (Roms. 9:4&5).
But here in our text Paul answers the question by giving us one single benefit that the Jews had. He says, “First . . .” but we look in vain for advantages two, three, four, five and so on. “First of all” – it could mean first be way of priority, or ‘chiefly’, of first importance, is this . . . But it is not significant whether he means ‘number one’ or ‘the supreme advantage’ because both interpretations assume that there are other reasons extant. In his answer here in Romans 3 Paul simply homes in on this one priceless advantage of being religious – all other advantages excelling! “First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (v.2). It’s a great translation; I love that phrase. The two words in the original Greek would be known to many of you, logos in the plural form, and thus “words”, and then the Greek word for God, theos, from which we get our word, ‘theology’ the study of God. You see what we are confronted with here? The claim that there is such an entity – such a glorious reality – in this world as the very words of God our Creator and Judge, and the Jews had it, and no other nation in all the ancient world except them. To them alone God had spoken. Paul is speaking about the whole Old Testament Scripture, the 39 books that it contains from Genesis to Malachi. The inference is that God had sent inspired prophets to the Jews from the time of Moses, and they had faithfully charged their minds with retaining the words that God had given to them, and then they had declared those very words to the children of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord,” and they had also written them down over a period of a thousand years, and God in his providence had preserved them. We have them! They are here before us today, the very words of God. I can show them to you. I can hold them to my heart. I can carry them around. I possess the very words of God
Do you get a little glimpse of the glory of that? We have in our possession the most life-changing, world-changing force in the world, the words of God himself, something that has exerted an incomparable power over human life and culture. The Bible is the words of God. That brief statement catches the fullness and depth of Scripture’s uniqueness. Those who read it for the first time and whose hearts are touched by God’s Spirit sense that they are in contact with something divine. And those who have read the Bible for decades find that even after many years they have not solved its mysteries or plumbed its depths. Sometimes, upon discovering a mind-blowing truth on its pages they shake their heads in wonderment and say under their breath, “Yes, surely these are God’s words not man’s.” Now you might have an objection that this was only the theory of the apostle Paul and so my first point is this.
- PAUL THE APOSTLE OF JESUS CHRIST IS SIMPLY EXPLAINING TO US WHAT THE SON OF GOD HAD TAUGHT.
Let me carefully show you this. My concern is to prove to you that in their attitudes to the Scriptures you cannot put a sheet of Indian paper between how Jesus regarded the Old Testament and how Paul regarded it. Christ and his apostle were absolutely one in believing those Scriptures to be the very words of God. Let me show you:
i] Christ recognised the same Old Testament that we have today. On the road to Emmaus he is speaking to Cleopas and his companion and he says to them, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk. 24:44). That reference was to the accepted canon of the Jewish church of his day. There were those three major divisions of the Old Testament among them and the risen Jesus claimed that all three referred to him. During his ministry he referred to no other sources. He never quoted from the apocryphal books, only the law, the prophets and the writings.
ii] Christ regarded the Scriptures as coming directly from God. In everything he said and did he showed that he held to the divine origin of Holy Scripture. In Mark 7 and verse 13 he speaks of the law of Moses as ‘the word of God’ – almost exactly what we have here in our text in Romans 3 except that it is singular, ‘word’ of God not ‘words’ of God. He also charges the Pharisees, “you are ‘making the word of God of none effect through your traditions, which you have delivered.’” Each time Satan tempted Christ in the wilderness he replied with the phrase, “It is written” and he quoted three times from the book of Deuteronomy.
iii] Christ regarded the Scriptures as authoritative. He never contradicted or found fault with Scripture, though he was very critical of the Pharisees’ religion and beliefs. He said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18&19). In Matthew 26:24 he showed that he was self-consciously doing what God wrote of his life to come in the Scriptures, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” He based his actions and his teaching on the Old Testament.
iv] Christ regarded the Scriptures as true and reliable. He never put his own words above Scripture, as if there were any contradiction or a different level of authority. He was himself under the authority of the ten commandments, one of which says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” When he was praying for his apostles and those who came to faith under their teaching he said to his Father, “Your word is truth” and in John chapter 8 he said that the Scripture cannot be broken – that word means to annul, to break a legal agreement or a treaty. Man, even the most brilliant philosopher, cannot deprive the Scriptures of their binding quality as reliable truth. Dawkins can’t do it, and neither can Hawkins. Even the book of Psalms, full of poetry, has yet its own factual binding authority over man.
v] Christ regarded the Scriptures as testifying to himself. The people of Jesus’ day had made the Bible a selected rule book for outward conduct as amplified by their traditions, but the primary interpretation of Scripture means seeing Christ in every part. The whole Bible is Christological. These are among the last words he spoke to his disciples on the hill of ascension; “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Lk. 24:46). He had urged them to search the Scriptures because they testified of him. He challenged his hearers, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (Jn. 5:46&47).”
vi] Christ regarded the Scriptures as able to save. Jesus said that man lives by the word which proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). That is life, returning again and again to the Bible, looking at the Scriptures, grasping their meaning and putting them into practice, and so becoming the kind of men and women who show they are blessed by God. Jesus encouraged his congregation that they were right in believing that in the Scriptures they had life (Jn. 5:39). All his miracles had this primary thrust, “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matt. 9:2). They all showed the power of Jesus’ word to save and deliver. After hearing him preach the Samaritan villagers of Sychar said, “Now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” So Jesus taught his apostle Paul to have this high and holy view of the Old Testament Scriptures, and he in turn taught Timothy, writing to him, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16&17)
How important it is to believe in an infallible Christ. And that infallible Christ gives to me an infallible Bible. Where are the evangelists in Britain today who reject the infallibility of the Bible? They do not exist. Every preacher who has an awakening and church building ministry believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, and he does so because Jehovah Jesus has taught him to do so. It is a sin for a Christian to know better than Jesus.
You know of the late Chuck Colson, the man who worked in the White House, Washington D.C. who was imprisoned for his part in the Watergate affair which resulted in the termination of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Colson was later born again, a phrase he gave to the title of his autobiography. He started the influential Prison Fellowship ministry. There was a time when he did not appreciate the doctrine of biblical infallibility. He made a journey to believing it and seeing its importance. He wrote this, “Experiences in the past two years have profoundly altered my thinking. The authority and truth of Scripture is not an obscure issue reserved for the private debate and entertainment of theologians; it is relevant, indeed critical for every serious Christian layman, pastor, and theologian alike.
“My convictions have come, not from studies in Ivory Tower academia but from life in what may be termed the front-line trenches, behind prison walls where Christians grapple in hand-to-hand combat with the prince of darkness. In our prison fellowships, where the Bible is proclaimed as God’s holy and inerrant revelation, believers grow and discipleship deepens. Christians live their faith with power. Where the Bible is not so proclaimed (or where Christianity is presumed to rest on subjective experience alone or content-less fellowship) faith withers and dies. Christianity without biblical fidelity is merely another passing fad in an age of passing fads. In my opinion the issue is that clear-cut.” That was true for the history of prison fellowships. It was certainly true for the history of Christian congregations all over Wales which are withering and dying wherever the Spirit of Truth has been grieved by the rejection of his testimony to the veracity and infallibility of the Bible. The Student Christian Movement opposed the full truthfulness of the Bible and so it died and is no more.
- THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A RELIGIOUS PERSON.
The Jews were moral and religious people. Good. Their religion was supernatural. Good. They believed the Scriptures. Good And the God they worshipped was one living God. Good. Those truths must have had some good influence over them. Look at the people we find at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah and Simeon. Good. Consider Timothy, how his faith had lived first in his grandmother Lois and then in his mother Eunice. Good. Paul could write to him “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). You couldn’t say about those impressive men and women that believing the Scripture’s promises about the coming of the Messiah and waiting for his appearing were harmful or of little use to them. It was of much use to them. So what advantage is there in being a student who chooses to attend the university Christian Union on a Friday night? What does someone gain from coming to church like ours each Sunday?
i] You will sin less and so you will receive a milder judgment. Let me start there. That is true and obvious, and so it is not to be sniffed at. It was Christ who spoke of being beaten with many stripes or with less stripes, about a great reward in heaven, and so a less great reward. It was the Lord Jesus himself spoke of the fires that are not quenched, and outer darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Who can live in the eternal burnings? Your situation is desperate. You are dead in trespasses and sins and you cannot give yourself life. You cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God because they are foolishness to you. But to make matters worse, those ‘things’ – in other words, a sight of the Lord Jesus Christ, and a love for him – can only be received by the ministry of the Spirit of God himself – which you are still stubbornly rejecting. You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, otherwise you will receive the wages of sin which is death, eternal death. You are storing up wrath for yourself by your frequent sinning. Yet the grand reality is that you are still sitting under the preaching of the gospel week after week, your conscience is still being enlightened as to what is right and what is wrong; you are kicking against goads while you sin persistently. The things of the law are written on your heart so that you cannot do the things you desire in your lustier moments because your conscience prevents you. So while you are not a Christian yet you admire and enjoy the presence of Christians, and singing the praise that Christians sing, and these restraints are for your good both now and also when you stand to be judged by God. They cannot save you for heaven, but they can save you from “many stripes” in other words, a more severe punishment in hell (Lk.12:47&48). But there are better advantages . . .
ii] You will become familiar with the person of Christ, and the way of salvation by attending church on Sundays. Here is a boy who has never heard the gospel. The name ‘Jesus’ for him is a swear word. It means nothing at all to him to tell him Jesus loves him. So what? Who is Jesus? But you’re not like that. You know the gospel message, that we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but God sent his Son Jesus Christ to become the Lamb of God to die for us because Father and Son loved us, and if we trust in him and follow him then will be saved. You know that you must repent and turn from your unbelief and that you must ask God to save you. You have heard godly loving people – the people you most admire – praying all your life. So you know what real prayer is like when you – soon’ we pray – start to have dealings yourself with God. You’ve had many good examples and teachers. So don’t cease mixing with Christians.
A pastor friend of mine sent me the testimony of a man he’s baptising this month. His name is Matthew and he is 22 years of age. He asked to see the pastor recently and told him of the way he had been awakened in a Lord’s Day service last November. Up to that point, he had been largely unconcerned. Somehow, he had managed to filter out everything he’d ever heard preached – it applied to others but not to himself. He works in a nursing home, has often witnessed death, has been troubled often when he’s heard the clichéd assurance that a resident ‘is in a better place’. He’s found himself asking again and again, “But is she? If she wasn’t a believer in Christ, she isn’t!” But on that Sunday in November as his custom was to go to church, for the first time, as he heard the words of God, he asked himself, “But what about me? If I died, would I be in a better place? I’ve never been saved!” From that moment his awareness of his own unreadiness to meet God grew and grew. So now he was asking my friend, “What must I do to be saved?” And the Bible’s answer is “Repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus, for the forgiveness of sins . . .” Matthew had become familiar with Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through regularly attending church on Sundays.
iii] One of the most common ways in which men and women are saved is hearing the words of God. Listen as I remind you of the testimony of Dan Walker the TV Sports presenter whose parents met in this church, and whose father, Austin, studied at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his family worshipped with us last year, and he spoke to 100 men here eighteen months ago. This is what Dan says about his journey to faith and forgiveness and how it was in the routine of sitting in church on a Sunday night that God met with him:
“I used to be a bit of a pain in the backside in church. I wouldn’t sit still, my mind would wander and I would regularly scratch things on the wooden walls. During one service, I managed to write, ‘I woz ere, Ere I woz, Woz I ere? Yes I woz.’ I even signed it ‘Dan Walker’. Looking back, that probably wasn’t the wisest move. My Dad hardly needed to call in the CSI team to work out the perpetrator. I was made to polish the whole wall as punishment. But that was me paying very little attention to church services, and desperate for them to finish, but I still attended.
“I had a lot of Bible knowledge in my young head but there was very little evidence of the love of Jesus Christ in my life. Then, one Sunday night in 1989, a man called Gerald Jackson walked into my life and switched on the lights. Gerald was an old friend of my Dad’s; he wasn’t the most dynamic speaker in the world, but he was warm, friendly and true to God’s Word. He preached God’s words about ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, the reality of hell for the unbeliever, and the importance of knowing Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour. I was rooted to the spot. For the first time in my life, my mind wasn’t wandering; I had no interest in scratching anything on the wall and I wasn’t daydreaming about scoring the winning goal in the Cup Final
“As Gerald spoke, I remember feeling the depth of my sin. I knew that I was offending God with the way I was acting and the life I was living, and the prospect of going to hell terrified me. I wanted to go to heaven – I wanted to be in the presence of God thanks to the saving love of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“After the service, I was a bit of a mess. My mind was racing and I had plenty to think about. For once, I didn’t go round to the back of church to throw apples at the grave stones; I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mr. Jackson had said. I wasn’t right with God and I really knew that I had to be.
“I went home and that night talked for what seemed like hours with my parents. I wanted to be a Christian but I just didn’t know what to do; I was in tears. I have no recollection of what my Mum or Dad said to me, but I remember that I went to bed that night a different person. I knew that my sins had been forgiven.”
By being religious and going to church each Sunday the work of God’s salvation became real as the Scriptures were preached and explained and applied to his heart by man and God. Today Dan Walker is invited to speak for Jesus Christ in meetings all over the United Kingdom. So I am saying that there are advantages to being a church-going, gospel-hearing boy, even though those things by themselves cannot save you.
- WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE BIBLE?
As I close this message I want to challenge you. Are you willing to risk picking up the Bible, reading it, and letting it change you? It’s possible that right now you are trying to cope with the mass of confusion that has your head spinning and your heart breaking. At this low point in your life you realise that you’ve failed everybody important to you – those who depended on you and those whom you depend upon. You have failed yourself and God. Your will power has practically vanished, and you are powerless to overcome some of the bad habits that have you have you in their grip.
Let me ask you have you ever taken up the Bible to read it? Try it. Begin reading with, say the gospel of Mark in the New Testament, the second book there, and let the power of the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ break into your life. Paul writes in the text before us how God’s words were the greatest advantage of being a religious person. When we read the Bible today we meet Jesus Christ face-to-face – Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour, the Word of God in the flesh. So when reading about him, we receive a double portion of the Word of God: Jesus Christ is the Word of God because he reveals God most perfectly, and the Bible is the words of God because it reveals Jesus Christ through and through.
I challenge you to do this. To be sure, reading the Bible is not like reading one of the short stories about Sherlock Holmes, even though those stories are fascinating. The Bible is life-changing on the deepest level. And I strongly suggest that if you are serious about letting the Bible change your life, you will need the help of the church, one which holds the same convictions that Jesus and Paul and Timothy held about the Bible being the very words of God. Find a church in which the Bible is central. You will need such a church, for the Bible is not always easy to understand, and we need the instruction of those who can help tell us its meaning. In the Bible, the Word of God, we encounter the instrument that God is using to achieve all his purposes and make all his goals come to pass. Whenever we read and study the Bible, we should expect to be changed by its powerful message. If you have not opened your life to the power of the Bible, don’t wait another day to do so. On the pages of this book you will meet Jesus Christ, your only hope for salvation. And as he captures you, he will change you completely. Let the Bible come into your life and expect that God will then accomplish his purposes with you. And when God has his way in a person’s life, the results are always splendid.
There was an occasion when John Wesley was speaking to his men, preachers who were transforming England, and even, probably, effectually saving the nation from the horrors of the French Revolution. This is what John Wesley said to them . . .
I am a creature of a day,
Passing through life as an arrow through the air.
I am a spirit come from God and returning to God,
Just hovering over the great gulf till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen;
I drop into an unchangeable eternity!
I want to know one thing – the way to heaven,
How to land safe on that happy shore.
God himself has condescended to teach me the way.
For this very end he came from heaven.
He has written it down in a book.
O give me that book!
At any price, give me the book of God!
I have it: here is knowledge enough for me.
Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book].
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men.
I sit down alone.
Only God is here.
In his presence I open the book,
I read his book
For this end, to find the way to heaven.
Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read?
Does anything appear dark or intricate?
I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:
‘Lord, isn’t this in your word, If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God?
You have said, If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.
I am willing to do, let me know your will.
13th April 2014 GEOFF THOMAS