Our Rich Jewish-Christian Heritage
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, May 11, 2008
Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
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.
What is the most precious gift God has given us? It is nothing less than his word, which reveals Jesus Christ, the author of our eternal salvation. Romans 3:1-2 speaks about the rich Jewish-Christian heritage we have in the sacred Scriptures. In this study we want to consider three things: unbelieving covenant man's question; the gracious answer of his covenant Lord; and, our response to the Lord's answer.
The Question of Unbelieving Covenant Man
In Romans 2 Paul made several provocative statements about the unbelieving Jews. He told them, "Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised" (Rom. 2:25). In other words, he was saying they were just like the Gentiles. He also said, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical" (Rom. 2:28). Paul was saying that mere possession of the law and being circumcised do not save a Jew from the wrath of God that is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress God's truth in unrighteousness.
In response to Paul's statements, we find a question in Romans 3:1. Notice, this is not the question of a Gentile, but of an unbelieving covenant man: "What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?" In other words, what is the Jewish advantage over a Gentile if both Jew and Gentile stand before God in judgment? We can ask similar questions of ourselves: What is the advantage of being brought up as a Christian? What is the profit of being baptized? What does it benefit to be born in a "Christian" country or to have Christian parents? What is the advantage of attending Sunday school and church services weekly? These are the questions we must ask. Paul answers this question - I say, God answers this question. To be born as a Jew has great advantage. To be a member of the covenant community is not without profit.
God Answers the Question
Paul answers the question in verse 2, and it is God who is really speaking: "Much in every way!" To be born as a Jew has great advantage. To be a member of the covenant community is not without profit. Then he cites the most important advantage that a covenant, unbelieving Jew, as well as a covenant, unbelieving Christian, has: "First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God."
The Jews were the custodians of the living oracles, the very words of God (ta logia tou theou). Paul speaks more about this in Romans 9:4-5, where he lists eight advantages:
The adoption as sons. No other nation was chosen and adopted by a sovereign God.
The divine glory. The Jews possessed the divine glory of God's presence that appeared in Mount Sinai and in the Holy of Holies. God's presence was with his people.
The covenants. God graciously entered into covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David.
The receiving of the law.
The temple worship. Paul was referring to the sacrificial system.
The promises of God. The Old Testament is filled with promises of a God who saves sinners.
The patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob belonged to the Jewish people.
The human ancestry of Christ. Jesus came from the Jewish people.
But all these advantages did not save the Jewish people. Mere possession of such advantages will not save a Jew or a Christian. We must have faith-active, penitent, obedient, and persevering faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The chief advantage of being a Jew was that the Jews were depositories and stewards of the oracles of God. This phrase (logia tou theou) "oracles of God" appears only three places outside of this passage: in Acts 7:38, where Stephen says Moses received the living words from God to give us, and in Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Peter 4:11. The Jews were the custodians of God's utterances now embodied in the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.
What implications were there for those who were entrusted with this great deposit of the divine treasure of God's own word? The Jews were to read it, believe it, and obey it fully. They were to defend God's word from all heretics and false prophets and proclaim it throughout the world, teaching themselves, their children, their nation, and the Gentiles. They were to translate it into other languages and interpret it correctly with divine illumination. They were not to add to or subtract from the very word of God.
Jesus was taught the word of God in his home, in the synagogue, and in the temple. In fact, his purpose in coming into the world was to know God's word and obey it fully. In writing to Timothy, who was taught the word by his mother and grandmother, Paul says, "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). How many children in Christian churches have been entrusted with this precious word, yet have not trusted in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation! I pray they would do so today as they once again hear the word of God.
There is no salvation for a Jew or a Christian without faith in the Savior Messiah, Jesus Christ. But this faith comes only through the holy Scriptures, so the Scriptures are to be cherished and taught. In the famous Shema passage Moses declares, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates" (Deut. 6:4-9).
The Scripture is full of divine authority and power. Joel Beeke and Ray Lanning say this about the Scripture: "Scripture is God speaking to us, as a father speaks to his children. In Scripture God gives us His Word as both a word of truth and a word of power. As a word of truth, we can trust in and rest our all upon Scripture for time and eternity. We can also look to Scripture as the source of transforming power used by the Spirit of God to renew our minds."1
The Jew was given this great entrustment of the divine treasure of Scripture. The Lord asks his people, "And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?" (Deut. 4:8). The psalmist declares, "He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the Lord" (Ps. 147:19-20).
The word that goes out of from the mouth of God is powerful to accomplish God's purposes: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:10-11).
This word comes upon our dried up, famished, lost souls as dew upon mown grass, as shower and rain. Moses declares, "Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants" (Deut. 32:1-2). Imagine life without water! But thank God, the word of God has come down from heaven upon our souls to revive and refresh us.
What a blessing it is that God himself condescends to speak to us! If a powerful man even looks at us, we are happy. But if he stops and speaks to us, we are excited and blessed. We go home and say, "This man stopped and even spoke to me." That is exactly what God has done. He himself has spoken to us, expressing his love for us. He speaks so that we may live, not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of his mouth (Deut. 8:3). God has given us his word that we may eat it and live by the nourishment and direction it gives. We are blessed that we can hear God's word faithfully preached weekly.
Not only are we blessed when God speaks to us, but we are in distress when he keeps silent. When God refuses to speak to us, we experience confusion and misery. Amos prophesies about an unusual famine: "'The days are coming,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'when I will send a famine through the land-not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it" (Amos 8:11-12). After much longsuffering, God threw his people out; his word stopped coming to them. In 1 Samuel 3:1 we find a curious phrase: "The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions" (italics added). God was refusing to speak to his own covenant people who had become wicked. Later, we read about Saul, to whom God spoke at first through Samuel. But Saul refused to live by God's word, and in 1 Samuel 28:6 we read, "[Saul] inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him." Saul then went to a witch to find out what would happen in the future. Elsewhere the prophet Azariah told King Asa, "For a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach, and without the law. But in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, and he was found by them" (2 Chron. 15:3-4). What a great tragedy it is when we are not hearing the word of God! We may have a Bible in our home but we do not read it or understand it because God refuses to speak to those who do not cherish his word.
What did the Jews do with the word of God? Most of them did not treasure it, but became like pagans, practicing idolatry. Those to whom God's word was entrusted treated that word as garbage, as something to be hated and discarded: "You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you" (Ps. 50:17). Additionally, although God's agents-pastors, parents, teachers, and friends-may have spoken, such people developed a hatred for God, his word, and his agents. But Isaiah tells us what happens to those who throw away God's word: "Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel" (Isa. 5:24-25). And Jeremiah asks, "To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it" (Jer. 6:10).
In the history of Israel there was a time when the Bible was lost. After many years, it was found and brought to the good king, Josiah. When Josiah heard the words of the law, he trembled, repented, and brought about serious reforms both in his life and in the life of the nation (2 Chron. 34). But his wicked son Jehoiakim had the opposite reaction. As his secretary was reading the word of God to him from a scroll, King Jehoiakim "cut [the columns he had just read] off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire" (Jer. 36:23). This king showed such hatred for God and his grace, love, and care by burning the word of God.
Moses warned the people of Israel to treasure the word of God: "When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, 'Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you-they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess'" (Deut. 32:45-47).
The rich heritage of God's word is our life; we ignore it at our eternal peril. Jesus spoke of a rich man who lived in great luxury. He was dressed in purple and feasted every day. This man had the Scripture, but he paid no attention to it. (PGM) After he died, he was in the fire, torment, and agony of hell. Not wanting his brothers to join him there, he asked if God could send Lazarus back to tell them to repent and believe in the word. God said no because they already had the law and the prophets.
There is nothing of greater value in the world than the word of God, which is our life. The psalmist says it revives the soul, makes the simple wise, and gives joy to the heart and light to the eyes. God's word endures forever, is more precious than gold, is sweeter than the best honey, and acts as our early warning system to keep us from sin. There is great reward for those who keep God's word. It is not the general revelation of God found in creation, but the special revelation that tells us reality, truth, and especially who God is, who man is, and how a sinner can be saved.
Psalm 119 is the great celebration of God's word, a psalm that discloses many aspects of God's wonderful word:
It is the ultimate standard for us to live by (v. 1).
It tells us how to live a holy life (v. 9).
It warns us from sin and keeps us from sinning (v. 11).
Unbelievers cannot understand it; we need God to open our eyes, which is nothing less than regeneration (v. 18).
When enemies or problems arise, the word of God gives us strength (v. 23).
It acts like a multitude of counselors whose wisdom gives us safety as we seek direction (v. 24).
We must choose the way of God's word (v. 30).
It is pure delight to a believer (v. 35).
It gives comfort in all suffering (v. 50).
It leads us to repentance (v. 59).
It is most precious (v. 72).
It is eternal because it is the word of the eternal God (v. 89).
It is the love of our heart (v. 97).
It is most sweet (v. 103).
It gives us guidance (v. 105).
It is our treasure (v. 127).
It gives us knowledge (v. 144).
It gives us the fear of God (v. 161).
It gives us great peace-the peace of God that transcends all human understanding (v. 165).
It is strength to our soul (v. 175)
God speaks to us in the Scripture; it is the living word of God. Paul writes that all Scripture is God-spoken (2 Tim. 3:16). Yes, it came through men whom God directed so that they wrote exactly what God wanted them to write. But the emphasis here is that it is the word of God that proceeds out of the mouth of God, charged with absolute authority and divine power, to be heard and obeyed. Paul says it 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 Tim. 3:16-17). Peter tells us the source of the Scriptures is God, who guided human beings by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Not only are the Old Testament books the very word of God, but so are the New Testament books (e.g., see 2 Peter 3:15-16, where the writings of Paul are called Scriptures).
In this great treasure of Scripture the Lord is speaking to his servants, says John Frame. Man is created to obey God. In redemption the sovereign reasserts his lordship so no one is saved without confessing Jesus as Lord. This Lord Yahweh makes absolute demands in the Holy Scriptures. We cannot question him, even when he says, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about" (Gen. 22:2). Paul says that is exactly what Abraham did (Rom. 4:20) because he is Lord and loyalty to him transcends all other loyalties.
Like Abraham, we cannot have any other gods nor can we serve two masters. We must hate our father and mother, our wife and children, and our own life, and follow Christ (Luke 14:25-27). This Lord, and his word, must govern all areas of our lives. Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, Frame says, we see God's word regulating worship, diet, sexual life, economic life, family life, travel, and calendar. Then Frame says this lordship is even more comprehensive in the New Testament, embodied in the words of Paul: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).2
Our Response to God's Word
We have heard God's word-through the preaching, through our parents, through our private and family devotions, through our Sunday school teachers. What should be our response to God's entrusting to us his very word? Do we value this privilege you have, this precious treasure that is more precious than gaining of the whole world? As James Boice says, it is this word that gives life to the spiritually dead, that convicts and cleanses us of our sins, and that teaches us the will of God and how we should live.3
There are several reactions among those who claim to be Christians to the Scriptures.
To the minority of people called evangelicals, the Bible is the word of God from beginning to end. It is entirely truthful because God is truthful.
To theological liberals, the Scripture is only man's word without any absolute authority. Therefore, they reject God and miracles.
Adherents of neo-orthodoxy say that God is so transcendent that he does not actually speak in human words, but reveals himself in ways we cannot talk about. To them the Bible is man's very weak witness to God's nonverbal revelation, a document with no binding authority.
"Evangelical lites" are those who say the Bible contains both God's word and man's word, resulting in truth and errors, which must be sorted out by critical scholars. They would say we must check with professionals to know what to believe and what not to believe.
Postmodernists say the Bible has no meaning in itself. Therefore, we can make it say whatever we want it to say, but it has no authority in our lives.
But there was one Jew, Jesus Christ, who came into the world and treasured the word of God. It was he who told the devil that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. He said, "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" (Matt. 5:17). He told his disciples the whole Bible-the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the Psalms-all spoke of him, that "the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47; see also vv. 25-27).
What about You?
The unbelieving Jews asked, "What is the advantage of being born a Jew? If Jews and Gentiles will both be judged by God, what advantage do we have over the Gentiles?" The answer is that they had the advantage of possessing the great treasure of God's word. But they had to believe this word, as Abraham did, to be saved.
Even so, many of us were born in Christian families, educated in the word in Sunday school, and heard the word preached for many years. We were dedicated and baptized in the church. What is our advantage over non-Christians? Much in every way. To us God has entrusted his very precious word that reveals the way of salvation through Jesus Christ crucified and risen. But have we examined the Scriptures? Have we listened to the claims of Christ in the Scriptures? The Jews examined the claims of Christ. They were like builders who looked at this stone, Jesus Christ, examining him very carefully. He was not acceptable to them, so they rejected and crucified him. But God raised him up, and Christ has now become the capstone and very precious cornerstone. All who trust in him will never be put to shame.
Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am-the Sovereign Lord, or a blasphemer, a precious cornerstone or a worthless stone to be cast away?" We must choose today. Either we will receive him as Lord or reject him as a fraud, but then face him on the day of judgment.
John Wesley, the great man of God, wrote:
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 the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath 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, 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, is it not thy word, 'If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God'? Thou hast said, 'If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.' I am willing to do; let me know thy will.4
In the Scriptures, God offers us his Son. I urge you to receive him as Savior and Lord today. Paul says we do not have to go to heaven to get the word of God or to hell to bring it up:
"The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,' that is, the word of faith that we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:6-10).
1 Dr. Joel R. Beeke and Rev. Ray B. Lanning, "The Transforming Power of Scripture" in Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible, Don Kistler, gen. ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 222.
2 John M. Frame, "Scripture Speaks for Itself," published in God's Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture, John Warwick Montgomery, editor (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), 182-183.
3 James Boice, Romans, Volume 1: Justification by Faith, Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 280.
4 Quoted by Boice, Romans, Volume 1, 279-280.
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Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
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