by Phil Enlow

The New Testament makes it plain that in God’s eyes, Abraham had two very different kinds of descendants. Some were children of promise, chosen of God, whereas others were children of the devil and of the synagogue of Satan. It is only when we view the Old Testament history of Israel through New Testament “glasses” that it comes into focus.

One danger in considering any theological or biblical question is that of “proof-texting,” that is, simply lifting quotes, often out of context, in support of a particular argument. If you employ that method it is possible to “prove” just about anything from the Bible!

One humorous and extreme example is that of a preacher who supposedly preached a sermon consisting of three main points. For point one he took as his text, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Point two was taken from the text, “Go thou and do likewise.” For point three he quoted, “That thou doest do quickly!” Now all of those are Bible quotes and two of them even directly concern Judas. Obviously, however, they are brought together in a way God never intended!

Every brand of theology tends to do this to one extent or another. Of course, no one connects scriptures in quite the ridiculous manner described above yet it is fair to say that no theological system paints a perfect and complete picture of truth. Each one tends to emphasize certain aspects of truth at the expense of others. It is also probably fair to say that none adequately recognizes the inability of any theological system to fully comprehend truth. So long as we are here there are mysteries that we will have to acknowledge even while we affirm clear statements of scriptural truth.

The danger of theology is that it tends to “filter out” or explain away scriptures that don’t seem to fit. And yet it also tends to become its own set of “glasses” through which scripture is read and understood. It thus effectively becomes a substitute for scripture! There are many in our world today who preach, not scripture itself, but rather their own theology and tradition using proof texts. Few seek to read scripture itself with an open mind that humbly looks to the Author for understanding.

I am not interested in a mere “proof text” debate. I have already referred to a number of scriptural quotes from the New Testament but I would like to look a little deeper. For example, instead of quoting only a few of Paul’s statements in Romans I would like to examine what he says in their larger context. Have I twisted Paul’s words? Have I used them “out-of-context”? Why did Paul say the things he said and how do they fit into the overall truth he was conveying?

Paul’s Unique Qualifications
In God’s overall plan Paul occupied a very unique place. First of all he, himself, was a Jew. More than that he was a highly educated and zealous Jew. From the point of view of the religion that prevailed in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, Paul was an expert, trained at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most highly regarded teachers in Judaic history. He was thoroughly familiar with the way in which the Jews saw themselves and their place in God’s plan.

But Paul’s knowledge went far beyond what he learned from Gamaliel. While traveling to Damascus to persecute Christians he suddenly encountered the risen Christ and was dramatically converted. He became as zealous a follower of Christ as he had once been an enemy.

But it went much further than that. He did not just ingest a “second-hand” message from those who had been Christ’s followers before him. Instead, he was singled out by God to receive a very special knowledge of “the gospel” that was to be proclaimed throughout the world. This knowledge did not come from theological “study” but by special revelation. In Gal. 1:11-12 he wrote, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

This revelation came over a considerable period of time, much of it spent alone with God. It was only after many years that he shared with James, Peter, and John and the others in Jerusalem what he was preaching and they recognized both the truth he preached and the special call of God upon him to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. Gal. 2:1-10.

Paul was used of God to write at least 13 books of the New Testament in which he discusses many aspects of truth contained in the gospel message. Our particular subject is “God’s Chosen People,” and Paul had many things to say on this subject. He touched on many relevant questions: What about the Jews? Where do they fit into God’s plan? What about Gentiles? What part does the law of Moses play? What about God’s promises to Abraham? How were they fulfilled? Were Jews “special” or “separate” in God’s economy? What about Israel’s unbelief and their rejection of Christ? How do you account for that and what does it mean?

Paul’s Teaching in Romans
These questions are touched on throughout Paul’s epistles but for our present purposes let’s primarily focus on Romans 1-11. Romans is perhaps Paul’s most “theological” book, one in which he clearly and logically lays out the gospel he had been called to proclaim. We have already quoted from this passage but let’s now see these quotes “in context,” following Paul’s argument to see how he answers the questions above in relation to the gospel. We will naturally refer to other scriptures since Romans is itself part of a larger context but let’s primarily examine Romans 1-11.

The theme of the whole book is contained in Rom. 1:16-17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” There are many wonderful subjects introduced such as “gospel,” “power of God,” “salvation,” “righteousness,” and “faith” yet notice how central the question of “Jew” and “Gentile” is to his subject.

A Time of Transition
Paul lived in a time of great transition. Jesus himself had said this in Luke 16:16, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” To this point God had dealt with the nation of Israel in a special way. They were singled out among the nations. But now things were about to change. Soon the gospel would be preached, beginning in Jerusalem. Then it would go to Samaria. Then Gentiles would be included and soon the gospel would go everywhere. As this began to unfold the questions we raised above were hotly debated and much on everyone’s mind. Paul was writing to Gentiles (Rom. 1:5-6) and desired that the answers to these questions be made clear as they were so central to the gospel message.

And so the first thing Paul says in this area is that the gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” What does he mean? Does this mean that God favored Jews above Gentiles, that the Jews’ access to God and salvation was somehow different or better than that of the Gentiles?

The larger context of scripture says, “No, of course not.” The word “first” is not there to convey the idea that Jews were “better,” “more acceptable,” “above,” or “different” from Gentiles when it came to salvation. In Romans 10:12 we read that when it comes to salvation, “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” Why then did Paul use the word “first”?

We have only to look at his ministry to see the answer. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas preached in the Jewish synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Their first message brought considerable interest but the second one stirred up jealousy and opposition from many of the Jews. In Acts 13:46-47, “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Throughout Paul’s ministry, wherever he found a synagogue he typically began his ministry there. Why?

For centuries God had dealt in a special way with Israel. To them the prophets were sent. Through times of great spiritual darkness there were encouraging prophecies of a Redeemer to come. A remnant from among the people remained true to God and longingly looked for what was to come. It was only right that God should first announce the good news to that faithful remnant, giving Israel the opportunity to receive the long-promised blessing. When Paul said, “first for the Jew” he meant with respect to time. Wherever he went he first made sure the Jews heard the message, knowing that there were those among them who would receive the Savior God had promised through their prophets.

Salvation—From What?
One key word in Paul’s theme is “salvation.” The question logically arises, “Salvation from what?” The rest of chapter one answers that question. In a word salvation is salvation from “the wrath of God.” The gospel reveals the fact that God’s wrath hangs over the heads of men. Why? They “suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Verse 18. Even when men’s knowledge of God comes only from the creation itself they “are without excuse.”

Why? Rom. 1:21 says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” In short the wrath of God comes about because men reject truth, choosing wickedness instead. The result is all of the terrible wickedness we see in our world.

Paul summarizes this subject by saying, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Rom. 1:32.

God’s Wrath
Now in general the wrath of God refers to something yet future. See Col. 3:6, 1 Thess. 1:10. It most particularly refers to the end when the door of mercy for mankind is forever closed and his judgment is carried out on the wicked. I say “in general” because there are of course many instances of God’s wrath being poured out within the scope of history such as the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar or under Rome. However, most of God’s dealings with mankind, even the “bad” things experienced in this world, represent not God’s wrath but rather His “kindness” that seeks to lead men “toward repentance.” Rom. 2:4.

But what, in general, is man’s response to this kindness? Rom. 2:5-6 says, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’” God’s wrath is clearly identified with the final judgment.

God Has No Favorites
But where does the question of Jews and Gentiles fit into this? Rom. 2:9-11 says, “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.” Simply put, “God has no favorites.” The Jews are not His favorites. Of course, the Gentiles aren’t either. God does not base anything on whether you are a Jew or a Gentile but on whether you do “good.”

Now certainly Paul is not teaching a gospel of works here! Based on his writings it is evident that he would define “good” as repenting of sins, believing the gospel, and serving God — all products of faith in the gospel message and in Christ himself.

It is nonetheless interesting that in judgment it is “first for the Jew”! The relationship with God enjoyed by Israel was a “double-edged sword.” Great blessings could be obtained by those who believed and obeyed, however, great judgment awaited those who did not. See Deuteronomy 28. A knowledge of truth carries with it a great responsibility.

Next, Paul says in verses 12 and 13, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Simply having been given the law didn’t make Jews righteous. And Gentiles who didn’t have the law nevertheless have a God-given sense of right and wrong (“the requirements of the law are written on their hearts,” verse 15).

Jews Who Are Not Jews
Next we come to the passage where Paul tells us about Jews who are not Jews in Rom. 2:17-29. In describing the way Jews thought of themselves Paul certainly knew what he was talking about. He addresses one who would call himself a Jew. That surely is significant. As we will see, just because someone calls himself a Jew doesn’t mean he is one.

He continues addressing this one as one who also relies on the law and brags about his relationship to God. He knows God’s will and approves what is right because he is familiar with the law. He is convinced of his qualification to instruct others, to be a guide for the blind, a light for those in darkness. This is a pretty good description of the way Jews, particularly Pharisees — remember, that Paul had been one — thought about themselves.

What is Paul’s point? His point is simply that while they may have the law they don’t keep it! A Gentile who, though he doesn’t have the law yet lives righteously is far better off than a Jew who has it and doesn’t keep it.

Then in verses 28 and 29 we come to the passage in which Paul says that “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.” Remember that in verse 17 he had written, “you call yourself a Jew.” Calling oneself a Jew and being one are two different things when it comes to God. Is this thought not plain? Are we lifting it “out of context”? I don’t think so.

No Other Hope
Follow his argument. Remember it begins with the gospel which is “first for the Jew.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for anyone, including Jews. They have no other hope, no separate plan from the rest of us. Wrath comes about because men reject the truth they have, choosing wickedness instead. When it comes to our eternal destiny God has no favorites. There is no special relationship with God simply because Jews possess the law. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.” Apply that to today. Is a descendant of Abraham automatically a Jew—in God’s eyes?

Chapter three begins by addressing the obvious question: “What advantage, then is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” This is a natural question to ask since Paul has gone out of his way to show that Jews and Gentiles are in equal need of the gospel. The chief advantage Paul cites is simply that “they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” The advantage has to do with spiritual knowledge. Of course that advantage disappears if the reaction to that knowledge is one of unbelief. There wasn’t any lack in God’s faithfulness; rather they failed to benefit because they did not believe His promises.

In Romans 3:5-8 Paul pauses to dispel a rumor regarding his teaching. Some were actually spreading the idea that Paul encouraged people to sin so God would be glorified! Their logic went something like this. When we sin and are untruthful it makes God’s glory and faithfulness shine all the brighter by contrast; therefore we should sin in order to exalt his glory! This would raise the question in some minds, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Paul rightly points out that this twisted logic would make judgment of sin impossible.

Jews and Gentiles Alike
Romans 3:9 gives us a conclusion based on what Paul has said so far: “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.” That sounds like equal standing to me! He then quotes from a number of Old Testament scriptures to support this conclusion.

Why The Law?
That raises another question: If Jews and Gentiles have the same standing before God, what in the world is the purpose of the law of Moses? Verses 19 and 20 answer this question: “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 held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

Clearly the purpose of the law was not to give man a means to be righteous before God but rather to shut his mouth and make him conscious of being a sinner. This is a necessary step in the kindness of God to lead us to repentance since by nature we are blind and tend to delude ourselves as to our own goodness. The truth is that we call good evil and evil good. Isaiah 5:20. Only the intervention of God can awaken a man to his need of salvation. The Jews may have had the law but they had no understanding of God’s purpose in giving it.

Verse 21 begins a glorious passage in which Paul tells of a righteousness that is “from God” and “apart from law.” He declares that both the law and the prophets (the Jewish scriptures) testified to this. This righteousness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ” and is “to all who believe.”

No Difference
Verse 23 is oft-quoted but the sentence actually begins in verse 22 and reads, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is rightly applied to the need of all men for salvation yet in the context Paul is actually speaking of Jews and Gentiles, reminding us that “there is no difference.”

The basis for this righteousness is found in the sacrifice of atonement that happened when Jesus died. God demonstrated His justice by punishing sin — through a substitute — and declaring righteous those who put their faith in Jesus.

Of course this eliminates any ground for boasting. Paul is referring back to the Jew in chapter 2 who boasted about his relationship to God through the law. Paul gives his essential teaching regarding being declared righteous in God’s eyes in these words in verse 28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Paul then asks a question: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?” Of course He is God of both. Whether one is a Jew or a Gentile righteousness comes by faith.

The Law Upheld
That raises another question since it is faith and not observing the law that makes a man righteous. Verse 31 says, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” The answer is, “Not at all! Rather we uphold the law.” That sounds confusing! How do we uphold the law if righteousness comes by faith and not law?

Many people do not understand the connection between law and grace. Many even try to mix the two. They cannot be mixed but they are connected—intimately. It is not as though God tried to reach man through the law and then gave up and said, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s scrap the law and try something else.” The law was part of His plan—He has only one plan—from the beginning. So how did a gospel based on faith uphold the law?

The answer begins by reminding ourselves of God’s purpose in the law—to show man his need. As Paul said in Gal. 3:24, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” So the purpose of the law is fulfilled when a man realizes his need and puts his faith in Christ. But there is more to it than that.

The Law Fulfilled
Let’s go to the words of Jesus in Matt. 5:17-18. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill 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.” Paul says that the law is not “nullified” whereas Jesus says he didn’t come to “abolish” it (and the prophets).

The important word here is “fulfill.” Jesus came to “fulfill” the law and the prophets. What does that mean and how does it relate to what Paul is saying? The first thing that needed to be fulfilled was the righteousness expressed in the law. Israel may have had it but no one ever lived up to it. Jesus did. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that in Christ we have “one who has been tempted in every way just as we are—yet was without sin.” Israel had the law but all it could do was to accuse them. Jesus fulfilled it.

But he fulfilled it in another way. The law provided a way of forgiveness through sacrifice. The sinner would take a spotless animal to a priest who would offer the sacrifice and represent the sinner before God. The fulfillment should be obvious. The sinless Son of God became the spotless Lamb. In John 1:29 we find Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. John said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus fulfilled the law by becoming the perfect sacrifice for every sin that has ever been committed against that law.

The Old Testament sacrifices were many, offered repeatedly but not so with Christ. Hebrews 9:28 tells us that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people....” His sacrifice is “once for all.” Heb. 9:26. In his death, Jesus fulfilled every Old Testament sacrifice. There is no further need of them or of the law. It is not simply set aside, but rather fulfilled completely.

And not only is Jesus the law-keeper and subsitutionary sacrifice, he is also the priest! The priesthood of Aaron and his descendants was necessarily temporary since they were human and didn’t live long. But Christ’s priesthood is unchanging and for all time. As our great High Priest he carried, not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own blood into heaven itself, the true holy of holies of which the earthly holy of holies was merely a type. Hebrews 9:11-29. That sacrifice was accepted in heaven and never needs to be offered again!

In yielding to the death of the cross Jesus was upholding the justice of the law which demanded the death of every sinner. The law was not set aside. It’s penalty was exacted upon him in all its fury. As Isaiah foretold in 53:5, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The law set aside? The “least stroke of the pen” ignored? Never! It all was fulfilled in him.

And of course, he fulfilled the words of the prophets who spoke of his coming and what he would accomplish.

Faith Embraces The Law
But what does this have to do upholding the law by faith? When we put our faith in Jesus we are acknowledging everything his work accomplished. We are acknowledging both the righteousness of God’s law and our guilt. We are acknowledging God’s justice in punishing OUR sin. We are acknowledging our need of both sacrifice and priest and we are acknowledging that all of these things are to be found in Christ. When we put our faith in Jesus we are not setting aside the law but rather embracing it fully, fulfilled in our wonderful Savior. As Paul said, “We uphold the law.”

To be continued.

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