The Oracles
The Plain Truth About Romans 3:2

by
Dale Carmean and Jack M. Lane

What were these oracles? Were they a secret law of some kind, or perhaps a hidden oral tradition God gave only to the priests? Was the calendar really a part of the oracles God gave Moses? Why were the oracles an advantage for the Jews? This passage has always been a mystery to many. Here at last is the truth about this enigmatic portion of scripture!


Would you adopt ritualistic hand washing ceremonies or repetitive washings of pots and pans, all for the sake of religious posturing? Would you look for ways to avoid taking care of your elderly parents, or seek to avoid other obligations, then hide behind your religion as an excuse? The Pharisees did these things. Would you?

Would you think to conspire against Jesus Christ, or bring hard questions to Him for the purpose of tripping Him up, rather than to learn the truth of God? The Scribes did just that. Would you?

If you were a religious leader, and you saw the Messiah (and you were pretty sure it was the Messiah) walking among the people, teaching, performing miracles, and changing lives, would you see it as a direct threat to your own power base and prestige in the community? Would you do everything you could to destroy the man who was taking the people away from following you? The Jewish leaders of Jesus' day did that. Would you?

Which would you rather be, a disciple of Christ or a disciple of the Pharisees? Most of us would answer, "Well, a disciple of Christ, of course! What kind of questions are these, anyway?" We'll soon see that these are very important questions!

WHO WERE THE PHARISEES?

During the time of Jesus and the apostles, the Pharisees were perhaps the most wealthy and influential sect of Judaism. In this context, the word "Jew" can often be used interchangeably with the word "Pharisee," as the Pharisees represented the dominant thought and philosophy of mid-first century Judaism.

The Scribes and Pharisees were portrayed in the gospels as men who were less than honorable in their spiritual intent, while being scrupulous about certain physical things. Jesus spoke of the hyper-religious people of His day (and throughout all time) as people who would overlook a plank in their own eye while trying to get a speck out of someone else's eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Another comparison Jesus used is that these people would strain their soup to get out a gnat that had fallen in there, without realizing that they themselves were swallowing an entire camel (Matthew 23:24)! These were metaphors for overlooking the really important things while concentrating too much on little, picky things which were comparatively unimportant. As the expression goes, the Pharisees were "majoring in the minors."

Although by their own physical, carnal standards the Pharisees seemed very righteous, Christ could see through to their hearts, and He knew how unrighteous they really were! They were religious, but they were not righteous. Their hostile and angry attitudes were very evident, not only to the One who had created all men, but also to the writers of the gospel accounts, who have described the Pharisees for us with incisive sharpness.

Actually, the behavior of the Pharisees can be understood in the context of their political and social environment. They were zealously trying to preserve Judaism as a distinct culture (which they considered to be God's culture) against the pagan Greek influences of the Roman Empire, which was occupying their land at the time.

But Jesus warned His disciples against the leaven, or more specifically the doctrine, of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6-12). Leavening, of course, is the agent which puffs up bread dough as it permeates the dough. Once the dough is leavened, it can never again become unleavened. Therefore, the leavening of the doctrines of the Pharisees was to be strictly avoided.  Once someone's mind becomes permeated with the thinking of the Pharisees, it's difficult to root it out.  Better to avoid it in the first place.

Vine's Dictionary reflects on the nature of the Pharisees this way: "In their zeal for the Law they almost deified it and their attitude became merely external, formal, and mechanical. They laid stress, not upon the righteousness of an action, but upon its formal correctness" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, article "Pharisees"). The phrase "formal correctness" reminds one of the stuffiness and falsity of the formal etiquette practiced in previous generations by those wishing to be considered, by others, as "socially correct."

But the Pharisees' approach went even further. If they had, in effect, deified the law, that would mean that they worshipped the law itself, not the Lawgiver. They could see things to do, but not the reasons why. From this, and from their actions recounted in the Gospels, we can conclude that the Pharisees were a carnal bunch of people. They literally wore their religion on their sleeve (Matthew 23:5)! (Of course, later, after Christ's ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit beginning on the day of Pentecost, many Pharisees became members of the church, eventually including the Apostle Paul [Acts 23:6]!)

To the carnal and unconverted, those who can see only the physical things of life, carnal thinking is the natural outcome. Any righteousness in these people can only be physical because their religion and outlook are physical. This is the case today among some religious people. Many walk by sight, and not by faith! Their religion is the most important thing, not their relationship to God or His children.

But to those God has called, who are able to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), who begin to walk by faith rather than by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), the Pharisees' approach to life is the antithesis of this new way of life, and followers of "the Way" must avoid allowing the leaven of the Pharisees' and Sadducees' doctrines to enter into them, lest it spread, puff up, and leaven the whole lump.

MOSES'  SEAT

In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus is deftly answering questions put to Him by various Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. The questions were not intended to enlighten the questioners or educate the people as much as they were intended to embarrass Jesus, trap Him, and make Him look foolish. But Jesus was able to deflect the questions, and teach valuable lessons while at the same time magnifying the law and making it even more honorable. Finally, in verse 46, "And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore."

At that point, a lesser man might have retired from the scene grinning smugly, knowing he had won the debate. Instead, Jesus did something people find remarkable: He seemed to commend the Scribes and Pharisees, and appeared to back them up as authorities in the community! "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do...'" (Matthew 23:1-3). Some have even used this scripture as their authority to follow some of the practices of the Pharisees, since the Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses' seat. But is this the correct understanding?

What does it mean to sit in Moses' seat? Was there an actual chair in the synagogue, or is it a figurative title?

"Jesus conceded that the scribes sat 'on Moses' chair' (Matt. 23:2), i.e., that it was their business to teach God's will as revealed in the law of Moses. But he warned the people and the disciples against the scribes' example. They did not practise what they preached." (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3, p. 482, article "Scribe")

And the chair? "In the synagogues it was customary for the preacher to stand to read the Scriptures and to sit to expound them (Lk. 4:16-21). The expression 'Moses' seat' (Matt. 23:2) may therefore be figurative, indicating the authority of the teacher who, like Moses, speaks in God's name. ... The most respected members of the synagogue congregation [that is, the ones who contributed the most money! -Ed.] sat in the front seats (Mk. 12:39), a practice which led to unhealthy class distinctions (Jas. 2:2-4). There is later evidence for a special chair ('Moses' seat') for the chief elder of the synagogue...." (ibid., p. 589, article "Sit")

The idea of sitting in Moses' seat, then, is that such a person was in an authoritative position to preach and proclaim the Torah, the teachings of Moses. Many scriptures show that while we, in the New Covenant church of God, are not under the curse of the law (which is the penalty of the law), God's laws are still applicable to us today! They must be written on the hearts of those who are under the New Covenant, and must be obeyed by those who call themselves Christians. In this regard, what Christ meant was: "To the extent that these men preach the law of Moses, do what they say. God's law must be obeyed. But don't follow after their examples."

Jesus was not telling the multitudes and His disciples to become Pharisees, to do what the Pharisees do, or that if they wanted to please God they should look to the Pharisees. He continued: "... but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders ... all their works they do to be seen by men. ... They love the best places ... and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi'" (verses 3-7).

Is this the kind of behavior Christ wanted His disciples to emulate? Would He have wanted us to adopt the customs and traditions of the scribes and Pharisees? Not at all! In the next few verses, Jesus commanded His followers to live just the opposite way of life!

Yet, Jesus was referring to the Pharisees and scribes as those who had some authority. Did that authority extend to us today, in the New Covenant church of God? Only to the extent we are under the authority of "Moses' seat." Since we are not under the authority of the Jews, since we have a direct relationship with God as our personal Father, we realize that we each have the responsibility to obey God, in the magnified and honorable way Jesus taught us, and as the Spirit of God gives us the ability to obey. We are not under any obligation to the "Moses' seat" of ancient synagogue worship.

Following Jesus' comment about Moses' seat comes the well-known series of denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees. Seven times Christ thunders, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" Sin after sin was revealed by the One Who can read all hearts. The force of the vehemence Christ used against these men practically withers the reader under the intense blast, even after all these centuries! It should be abundantly clear that Christ did not want His followers to pattern their lives or behavior after the Scribes and the Pharisees. Whatever authority the Scribes and Pharisees may have had, they were not being held up as examples the people should follow.

WHAT ADVANTAGE HAS THE JEW?

Now that we have a proper perspective of the religious Jews, and have set a backdrop for our story, let's examine a verse that has been consistently taken out of context and used to "prove" things that it simply does not prove at all! This verse has been used countless times to make a certain point, but that point has actually been read into the verse each time! The verse simply is not talking about the subject it is said to address!

We find this much misused verse in Romans chapter 3: "What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God" (verses 1-2).

What is this passage talking about? Out of context like this, it can mean practically anything, or nothing at all. It would be a fairly simple matter for a speaker or author to drop this passage into a sermon or article to "prove" that the Jews had it right, and we should follow their practice in one area or another, whatever the speaker or author happens to be addressing at the time. In other words, this verse has very frequently been used, out of context, as a "proof text."

We have often seen this passage used to back up the observance of the Hebrew calendar by the clergy in organized churches which follow this calendar. Since there is no calendar given in scripture, they reason, then God must have given it to Moses orally, and it must have been passed down orally through all the centuries, with the Jews holding the responsibility of these oracles, or the oral tradition.

We have been led to believe that the Jews had these oracles, and that the advantage was that they had the calendar! Therefore, we should not only do what they said, but also what they did, as God-ordained authorities -- but only in matters of the calendar!

On the surface, completely out of context, that might appear to be what the passage is referring to. That's what speakers and authors have told their congregations and readers it means! But is that the correct understanding?

WHAT ARE THE ORACLES?

Many writers and sermon speakers today mention the Talmud and the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish writings and commentaries completed in the second and third century A.D.. It is claimed that these are the oracles referred to in Romans 3:2. The contents of the Talmud and Mishnah are reportedly the sum total of all the oral traditions passed down from Moses to Aaron, from Levite to Levite, from rabbi to rabbi, down through the centuries, supposedly unchanged, until they were written down in the second century A.D., long after Paul wrote Romans 3:2.

Could these oral traditions be called oracles? Yes, they could. They are the oracles, or spoken traditions, of the Jews. They may or may not have begun with Moses or include any authentic quotations from Moses. They may or may not have contained some of the calendar laws.

The question at hand is: Are these Jewish oracles that comprise the Talmud and Mishnah the same oracles referred to in Romans 3:2? Most of us have heard, many times over, year after year, that this is the case. Now we must face this issue squarely and challenge our long-held belief.

The English word "oracle" is defined, theologically, as "a command or revelation from God," and ultimately derives from the Latin orare, "to speak" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). Naturally, then, it sounds as if the word might refer to an oral law, or an oral tradition, or some oral command given by Moses, or even by God Himself. Someone had to speak what was spoken, and if no authorship is listed, surely it must be from God. However, this is fallacious reasoning!

God's church must not build doctrine or understanding based only on English or Latin words, or on unfounded suppositions.

The New Testament Greek uses the word logion (Strong's #3051) four times, which the King James translators and others translated as "oracles" each time it occurred. Logion bears a linguistic relationship to another Greek word with which we are already familiar: logos. Although the word logos means "word," or "intelligent speech," logion means "sentence, declaration, ... the declaration of God, ... the historical manifestations of this Word of God" (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, New Testament). According to Zodhiates, then, the word logion might even refer at times to the physical life of Jesus, although that does not seem to be the case in the four verses where the word is used.

Let's see the four verses where logion has been translated "oracles."

Acts 7:38: "This is he [Moses] who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles [Margin: sayings] to give to us" (NKJV). NIV renders this verse "... and he received living words to pass on to us."

Romans 3:2: "Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles [Margin: sayings, Scriptures] of God" (NKJV). "... they have been entrusted with the very words of God" (NIV). "... the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God" (NRSV).

Hebrews 5:12: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles [Margin: sayings, Scriptures] of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (NKJV). "In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again" (NIV). "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God" (NRSV).

1 Peter 4:11: "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles [Margin: utterances] of God" (NKJV). "If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God" (NIV). "Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God" (NRSV).

The honest reader must admit that there is nothing in these verses about secret oral commands from God, or rules concerning the calendar, or that the Jews had things right in some regards. It simply is not there.

Understanding the word logion as it is used in these other contexts will help us to properly understand the meaning of its usage in Romans 3:2. Notice the three other uses of logion:

(1) Moses "received the living oracles to give to us," not to hide or keep secret, as some have said. These are the oracles of God. They are not secret, nor are they oral traditions. They are the Holy Scriptures!

(2) The people to whom the book of Hebrews was addressed needed to be taught once again (not for the first time) the first principles of the oracles of God, which are outlined in the following chapter. No secret oral tradition here, either. They needed to get back to basics -- God's spiritual law!

These oracles with which the Jews were entrusted were nothing other than God's Word -- the holy scriptures! How can that be? Remember what Paul wrote to Timothy: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16). Inspiration and expiration describe breathing. An alternate rendering might be, "All scripture is God-breathed." Some translations render that verse in this manner. The word used for the Spirit of God is translated from the word pneuma, so the Holy Spirit (hagios pneuma) might even be understood as "Holy Air." (See also John 3:1-12.) The oracles are "the declaration of God, ... the historical manifestations of this Word of God." They are the God-breathed scriptures of the Bible! They are the Word's Word!

(3) Again, note how Peter wrote (in 1 Peter 4:11) that if someone is to address an assembly of God's people, his sermon or presentation should be, not so much "as the oracles of God," but "as one speaking the very words (oracles) of God." That is, he must be fluent in the doctrine of the Bible, and be able to convey the truth of the Bible by being so yielded and "in tune" with God that God can inspire the speaker. (Remember, prophecy was a common practice in the first century church!)

ARE THE ORACLES THE TALMUD?

Let's look again at the persistent notion that the oracles of God are the Talmud and/or the Mishnah. One reason this is not the case is that the Talmud and Mishnah were written down over a period of several generations, in the second and third centuries A.D. They are basically a compilation of Jewish rules and regulations, and endless commentaries from many viewpoints on various aspects of Jewish life. There is nothing in the book of Acts or any of Paul's epistles to indicate he ever quoted from these oral regulations, or even had them in mind when he wrote. There is much to indicate that Paul was against man-made rules and regulations that were held to be as important or more important than scripture!

"All right then," some people reason, "the Talmud and Mishnah are simply the written-down forms of the secret oral law handed down among the priests, Levites and rabbis, from generation to generation. It was a secret oral law during the time of Christ and the apostles. Therefore, the Talmud must be the oracles Paul was referring to, because it was not yet written down!"

But is that sound reasoning? Certainly, if a set of laws or traditions is passed on orally, it can be considered an oracle. It is, after all, spoken! We might go so far as to admit that the Talmud is an oracle, and the Mishnah another. But are they the right ones?

The Talmud and the Mishnah were the man-made oracles of the Jews. Please note what Paul said in Romans 3:2: "Unto them were entrusted the oracles of God"! Not the oracles of men, Jews, rabbis, Levites, even Moses or Aaron! They were (and still are) God'soracles! What Paul was referring to was not a man-made law or a set of customs and traditions of men, at all!

Please recall, the Jewish laws and customs were the very things Jesus railed against, time after time! This article began with several examples. Matthew chapter 23 is a record of Jesus taking the Jews to task for following these very rules instead of God's laws!

No, the Jewish customs and traditions, and oral history and law, and endless commentaries from a variety of rabbis, are not the oracles of God referred to in Romans 3:2. God's oracles, His declarations, are His Word, the Bible.

WHY ARE THE ORACLES AN ADVANTAGE?

It seems people are so keen on seeing the word "oracles" in the verse, that they fail to see the surrounding words. Paul said in this verse that the Jews (more specifically, the Jewish converts in the church) had a great advantage, simply because they had these oracles, and were entrusted with them down through the ages! That is the intent of the verse, and the meaning of that intent becomes crystal clear when we put the verse where it belongs: Back in its context!

So many times a passage of scripture is misused, usually without intending to do so, by taking it out of context. "Liberating" a verse from its context can easily allow its intended meaning -- God's intended meaning -- to be lost. This is what has happened. Paul meant something very specific when he wrote the words found in Romans 3:2, and we have missed it every time, because we have been told the verse meant something else. God's purpose would better be served if we were to understand every verse of the Bible as fully as we can, so we won't be easily misled. Let's find out what Paul meant here.

Why was it advantageous for the Jews to have been entrusted with God's holy scriptures? We'll see why as we explore, from beginning to end, the book of Romans. Romans 3:2 turns out to be a pivotal scripture in the main theme of the book of Romans!

EXPLORING THE BOOK OF ROMANS

The congregation in Rome was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. The Hellenistic Gentiles coming into the church would have had a different culture and background than the Jews, and Paul sought to address both elements of society in the congregation, comparing and contrasting the two approaches to true Christianity.

In chapter one, Paul begins by commending them all for their faith, which was famous in the churches throughout the empire (verse 8). He then identifies the gospel as the power of God to save believers, both Jew and Greek (verse 16). Paul then critiques the "wise fools" (Greek philosophers and others) who refuse to believe in the Creator of the creation, and the problems those God-rejecting people make for themselves and others by thinking they can sin freely and not be culpable for their actions.

In chapter two, Paul shows that evil results in evil and good results in good, for the Jew as well as the Gentile, for God is not a respecter of persons (verses 9-11). In fact, if the Gentile converts don't know God's law, yet do the things the law requires, they "are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts" (verses 14-15).

The Jews, who trusted in having the law and boasted about their special connection with God, were warned that the letter of the law and physical circumcision, so important to the Jews, were in fact nothing! Paul was telling them that having the law, and even knowing what the law says, is not what it takes. Nor is physical circumcision all-important, as the Jews had thought. Why? Because the Gentile converts, who did what the law required on a spiritual level, would judge (Greek krino; the implication is to condemn) the Jews who had the law, and knew the law, and did some of what it required physically, yet did not do what the law required spiritually! Just the fact that the Gentiles did what the law required would stand as a condemnation of the Jews, who knew the law but did not fulfill its requirements.

"Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth -- you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: 'God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'" (verses 17-24, NIV).

It's rather easy to see that these things Paul listed, and the result of such misbehavior, are quite applicable to the teachers and leaders of the church in other times, as well (i.e., today)! The epistle of James goes further into this subject, and would be a good epistle to study in this context.

Paul continues, "For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep [that is, obey] the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision" (verse 25)! To be circumcised, and then to become uncircumcised, by surgery or any other means, was an unthinkable horror to the religious Jew. The implications were enormous. It was simply inconceivable!

"For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter [of the law]; whose praise is not from men but from God" (verses 28-29).

The word "praise" is a pun, or a play on words, since "Judah" means "praise." Paul is saying that one's Jewishness is not because he is circumcised, or even because he might hold to the letter of the law. One's Jewishness, on the spiritual level, comes from God, when someone enters into the New Covenant with Him, and writes His laws on their circumcised hearts.

Paul has spent much of chapter two deflating the egos of the Jewish church members in Rome, letting them know that a righteous Gentile will sail into the kingdom long before a self-righteous, "ethnocentric" Jew would.

By this time, as the letter from Paul was being read, the Jews in the congregation might have been sitting rather low in their seats. Their previous faith and confidence in being special to God simply because of who they were began to shrivel. Paul was hitting them pretty hard, trying to shrink them down in their own sight. About that time they may well have begun to think, "Well, then, what's the use of being a Jew, anyway?"

Paul asks that very question at this point! "What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?" (Romans 3:1) Now Paul begins to give the Jews new hope. "Much in every way! Chiefly because..."

Here is the reason why it is advantageous to be a Jew. Not because of being circumcised. Not because of having the letter of the law. Not because they were special people. Here's why: "...because to them were committed the oracles of God" (verse 2)!

The Jews had been given God's law all along, from the days of Moses on, through the splitting of Israel into two nations, through the Babylonian captivity, and on up to the time Paul wrote these words! The Gentiles had never heard of many of these laws before, and were learning them for the first time in Sabbath services. The Jewish converts, for the most part, already knew God's law!

Paul has carefully spent time dislodging the Jews from their concept of why having the law was important. Then he begins to explain that having the law was very important, after all, but for a different reason than the Jews had understood before!

What effect might the hearing of God's holy, righteous law for the first time have had on these Gentile converts? What might they have thought about God's laws? Moses had predicted, back in the wilderness, "Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?" (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

Israel was a small fledgling race, barely more than a collection of tribes related through ancestry, just beginning their journey to nationhood. Moses was asking what great and mighty nation in the ancient world could possibly compare to the nation who had the Eternal as their God.

The Jews of Paul's day could indeed boast about having had God's law all along. The Jewish converts had a great advantage over the Gentile converts because they were already familiar with what God expected of His people. Paul was admonishing them not to think too highly of themselves because of this advantage, but to actually put it to use!

A Gentile who obeys the law and exercises faith in God is better than a Jew who knows the law backward and forward, but does not live according to it!

That is the background of Romans 3:2! Chances are, you have never heard this explanation before! The verse is not talking about calendars, oral Jewish traditions, or the authority of the Pharisees!

LET GOD BE TRUE

The Jews had the advantage over the Gentile converts because they had God's law entrusted to them. Since we know that most Jews of the time were secular in nature, and not devoted to God (much like our society today), might that have had an effect on the veracity of the scriptures? What would happen if the Jews, to whom the scriptures were entrusted, did not believe them or were not obedient to them?

Continuing in Romans: "For what if some [Jews] did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not!" (Romans 3:3-4)

God's law will stand, even if those who are entrusted with it fail to live up to it. "Indeed, let God be true [Margin: found true] but every man a liar" (verse 4).

But some of the Christians reading or hearing this letter from Paul might then swing to the opposite extreme, thinking that strict obedience, or pious activity (doing something to show God their religiosity), would bring about their salvation. Paul then goes on to explain that law-keeping will not justify anyone. All, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the penalty of sin, because there is none righteous. The purpose of the law is to bring us to the knowledge of sin (verse 20).

"But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets" (verse 21). Did you notice it? The Law and the Prophets witnessed to (testified to) the very thing the New Testament church is built on: God's righteousness, apart from the law. God's righteousness, through faith and by grace, has justified us, through the redemption of Christ's sacrifice (verses 21-25)! No one has ever justified himself or herself before God by his or her own actions.

What did that mean for the Jewish converts? They had known the law, because they had grown up with it, and had performed various "deeds of the law," so they had the advantage of being able to recognize sin in their lives more quickly than the Gentile converts would be able to recognize sin. But it was the grace of God, through the sacrifice of Christ, that eventually saved both Jew and Gentile.

"Where is boasting [about the law] then? It is excluded. ... Therefore we conclude that a man is justified [Margin: declared righteous] by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith" (verse 27-30).

The law does not save us. It teaches us what sin is. Does that mean that the law then becomes meaningless, useless, to be discarded like a map once we have found our destination? That tired old analogy doesn't hold water, because God's righteousness in us is not a destination, but the journey itself! The law of God isn't a road map to be discarded -- it's a lamp to our feet (Psalm 119:105, 130; Proverbs 6:23)!

If there is any doubt about whether the law is still important, notice Paul's next words: "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law" (verse 31)!

Or his later question: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2)

"What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!" (verse 15)

"Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good" (Romans 7:12).

A NEW LIFE AHEAD

Romans chapter eight is one of the most inspiring passages in all the Bible for those who have truly caught the vision and look forward eagerly to the resurrection and the Kingdom of God. Those church members who first heard it read to them were undoubtedly transfixed, lifted above their daily, humdrum existence, and given a vivid word painting of God's plan for them, transcending any cultural differences they may have had, or any human tendencies to divide along ethnic lines. They could picture themselves in the arms of their loving Father. There can be no thoughts of Jew or Greek, no concerns about law or circumcision, when this chapter is read. It uplifts the soul, it stretches the imagination, it takes the listener to another level of thought. When the congregational reader had finished reading this portion of the epistle, the members of the assembly no doubt felt bonded together more closely than ever!

Following such an uplifting section of his letter, Paul brings the message back to the present, in a way designed to convey the listener into a state of unrest and being ill at ease, so the listeners would be able to compare the vision of the kingdom to their own mundane physical concerns. Again, in verses 30-32, Paul warns of Gentiles who have achieved the righteousness of faith, while Israel, trying to be righteous through deeds of the law, failed to become righteous.

Israel (like so many people today) had a zeal, but it was to establish their own righteousness, rather than allowing God to build them up into a righteous people (Romans 10:1-3). They turned their advantage -- being entrusted with the knowledge of God's Word, the scriptures -- into a disadvantage.

However, God used the fall of Israel as an opportunity to bring salvation to the Gentiles! Israel's fall became riches for the world (Romans 11:11-12). Then, it is God's intention to graft the Israelite branches back into the tree, and ultimately all Israel will be saved, along with the Gentiles.

Following a great many exhortations, Paul encourages the church members, both Jews and Gentiles, "Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us [Margin: you], to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).

THE PASSAGE IN CONTEXT

Now, if we read Romans 3:2 in its context, we should be able to gain the correct understanding of Paul's meaning. Here is the context:

"Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

"For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart -- it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

"Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true...." (Romans 2:25 - 3:4, NIV).

As we can now see, Paul is not making a doctrinal statement, or even a dogmatic statement, about the oracles. Paul is speaking throughout the entire book of Romans about how the Jewish converts and the Gentile converts approach the law of God and the grace of God from different perspectives. Paul is comparing and contrasting the two experiences, and is attempting to refine the congregation into one unified whole.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR US TODAY

The purpose of this study was not only to gain a better understanding of the scriptures and people involved, but also to help us protect ourselves against being deceived.

There is a great misunderstanding about Romans 3:2. We must be on guard against being misled. It is possible for us all to misunderstand something, in all innocence. But be aware that Satan is quite well aware of the misunderstanding, and would like to gain the greatest advantage against us by perpetuating the misunderstanding!

When someone today uses an argument like, "The Jews had the oracles of God; therefore, what I'm telling you about the calendar [or any other matter] is true," that speaker or author may most likely be misled and deceived himself.  There's nothing evil or sinister about not fully understanding a scripture. It's part of our growth process to find out what these things really mean! No evil can be imputed under such a circumstance.

It is possible, though, that once in awhile a speaker or writer may actually know better, but for some reason may deliberately try to mislead people by tricking them and deceiving them into believing what he is saying, because he is using this "Bible proof." This is not to say that this happens frequently, but it is possible. We can't judge people's motives, but we can be on our guard against being misled! We must!

One of the instructions Christ and the New Testament authors had for us in the church is to be aware, be vigilant, and not be deceived! (For example, note the following scriptures: Luke 21:8; Galatians 6:7; 2 Timothy 3:13; James 1:16.)

The questions presented at the beginning of this article are indeed very serious. Would you participate in some of the hypocritical religious practices of the Jews, especially those practices which go against everything for which Christ stands? Would you acknowledge the ancient Pharisees' rule over you today?

We should stop to consider what authority they did have. Was it of God? The authority of the Pharisees came primarily from the fact that God allowed all the various man-made sects of Judaism, including the sect of the Pharisees, to grow in their own directions and develop their own ideas (not unlike the way God is allowing His church to grow in many directions at once today). Indeed, the Pharisees would have had no authority at all unless God had allowed it. (See John 19:10-11 and Romans 13:1-6. Although these references are about civil rulers, rather than religious leaders, the principle applies.)

The ancient Pharisees were just another carnal, power-grabbing sect of self-righteous social climbers, and were not God's representatives on earth. They finally gained control of the Temple in the mid first century; after that, Levitical service (by the descendants of Levi) was replaced by rabbinical service (the Pharisees were not Levites). It seems noteworthy that God had the Romans sack and destroy the Temple only a few short years after the Pharisees gained control of it!

If we do not accept the authority of the Pharisees (whether real or imagined) in our lives today, or in our religious practices, why would we suddenly lose our ability to think, and to prove things for ourselves, simply because someone stands up in front of a congregation and tells us a story?  The sermon speaker may say something like, "The Jews had the oracles. What are the oracles? Why, those are..." and then the speaker tells what he thinks the oracles were (because that is what he was taught). Then he continues, "So, since the Jews had these oracles [calendar rules, etc.], we must look to the Jews as our authority." Nonsense!

This is a gross misuse and abuse of scripture! This is a prime example of taking a scripture out of context, putting a different "spin" on it, blowing it up out of all proportion, and sending it on its way as a full-fledged doctrine! Yet, that is exactly what has happened with this one verse, and it got past every one of us!Why? Simply because we never took the time to study the verse in context!

Was Paul telling us in Romans 3:2 that the Jews had the authority to set the calendar? Of course not!

Were either Jesus or Paul telling us today to follow the observances and practices of the Pharisees of their day? There are some who think that's exactly what they meant, and will tell you so at the top of their literary lungs, "shouting in print" by the extensive use of upper case letters in their publications.

But the truth is, unless we meet in Jewish synagogues, looking to the customs and traditions of ancient rabbis, even rejecting the New Covenant and the Lord who made us, the fact that the Pharisees "sat in Moses' seat" is meaningless to us today.

The truth is, the customs and traditions of ancient Judaism, even in matters of setting the calendar, have no direct bearing on us today, in God's New Covenant church.

The truth is, the Jews have no authority over how a Christian lives his or her life.

The truth is, Romans 3:2 is not talking about a secret oral law from God or about the calendar calculations.

The truth is, we have never realized the truth about Romans 3:2 until now.
 
 

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