Exposition of Romans 3:1-4: God is reliable; humanity is not

The Jews misunderstood the Law of Moses as their assurance of salvation when in fact it was given to bring their flaws to the surface of their awareness. But instead of running to God for mercy, they reduced the law to a one-sided promise and wrapped themselves in a cloak of self-righteous pride.

By tearing away this faade, Paul brings out countercharges from his opponents that God is being both unfaithful and inconsistent. Are the Jews of Paul’s day right to object? God’s faithfulness and constancy means just as much to us as it did to them.

(ESV) Romans 3:1-4

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.

The first eight verses of Romans 3 are considered some of the most challenging in the entire letter. Paul continues his imagined argument with a Jewish or Jewish-Christian opponent, a style known as diatribe.

Osborne does a great job summarizing the biblical text that includes this lesson’s verses as well as the verses for the next lesson:

The basic issue is this: if there is no advantage in being Jewish, and if God can reject one of his covenant people, then how can it be said that God is faithful to his covenant promises? Paul’s lengthier response in Romans 9-11 is anticipated here: God’s response in judgment also constitutes being faithful to his promises. The covenant contained blessings and curses (= salvation and judgment here), and both are proper depending on the actions of the covenant people.[1]

Since the Jew has no special advantage over the Gentile during the judgment of God — thus has Paul argued in Romans 2 — why then would anyone think it preferable to be a Jew (3:1)? In light of all that is said in the Old Testament about the privilege of being God’s people, Cranfield points out a serious issue: “The question raised is nothing less than the question of the credibility of God.”[2]

The NET Bible does a great job translating Rom. 3:2 by saying, “Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” It is no accident that Paul begins with God’s revelation in words because that is the gateway to so much more! Cranfield explains that the phrase “the oracles of God” is virtually identical to “the Word of God.”[3] But possession of that treasure makes the holders all the more responsible to heed the words!

The other advantages held by the Jews are not taken up in this context, but Rom. 9:4-5 names many more: “the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. . . . the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!” (Rom. 9:4-5, NET).

Paul’s question in 3:3 is a rhetorical method of putting the blame where it belongs, but translators are unsure how to punctuate the sentence.

(ESV) What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?

(NET) What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?

For complex reasons, the NET Bible’s punctuation should be preferred here.[4]

Cranfield points out the heavy density in 3:23 of words based on the Greek root underlying the noun for faith and the verb for bothbelieve and entrust. Moo brings this insight to bear on 3:3 by saying, “These words point up the contrast between Israels ‘faithlessness’ and Gods ‘faithfulness.'”[5]

In case Paul’s rhetorical questions tend to confuse you more than help you, the NLT fairly renders them as statements: “True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful?” (Rom. 3:3, NLT).

Cranfield summarizes 3:3 by saying, “It is unthinkable that God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel should be rendered ineffective even by the Jews’ unbelief.”[6] Romans 9-11 shows how God will fulfill the covenant, just as he promised.

Humanity — here epitomized by unbelieving Jews — always has an excuse, a justification, an argument to shield itself from judgment. Paul seizes instead on the Old Testament’s assertion that God is faithful at all times. Osborne says, “Behind the term true is the Old Testament term [in Hebrew] for faithful (emet), meaning God is true to his promises.”[7]

By their unbelief the Jews had failed to keep the covenants provisions, yet they still wanted its blessings! Paul says it was God who was keeping the terms of the covenant by invoking the curses on covenant breakers. Osborne says, “God cannot be faithful to his covenant until he judges Israel; only then will he be proved right to his promises (and warnings).”[8] God’s judgments will in all cases be vindicated.

Semper Fi Ultra!

Christians have a critical stake in the issue of God’s faithfulness toward the Jews. If God has broken his promises to the Jews, then his promises to us are meaningless. Not to worry! Paul makes it plain that doubting God’s reliability is pointless; worse, those who accuse God of breaking his promises are liars.

1. Name one or two key promises from God are you relying on.

2. Over the centuries believers have had to resolve the issue of Gods reliability; how do you suppose they did so? How did you resolve the issue for yourself?

David had it right: “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name, because of your loyal love and faithfulness, for you have exalted your promise above the entire sky” (Psalm 138:2, NET).


[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 79.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 177.

[3] Cranfield, Romans, 178-179, footnote 1.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 183-184.

[5] Moo, Romans, 184.

[6] Cranfield, Romans, 181.

[7] Osborne, Romans, 82.

[8] Osborne, Romans, 83.

Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 9:8–11

Genesis 9:8–11
God said to Noah and his sons, 9 “Look! I now confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that is with you, including the birds, the domestic animals, and every living creature of the earth with you, all those that came out of the ark with you– every living creature of the earth. 11 I confirm my covenant with you: Never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood; never again will a flood destroy the earth.”
(NET Bible)

The only source of stability

We take far too much for granted. Global warming gives us a sense of how impossible life would be if our average temperature were five degrees higher during certain random years. What if gravity ceased for five minutes at unpredictable intervals? The outcome of both scenarios is that soon we would all be dead! The only reason we are not dead is the constancy of God’s care.

In the spiritual realm we also rely on the predictability of God — something we rarely consider. What if prayer was sometimes rewarded and at other, unpredictable times punished? Fortunately for us, God is not whimsical, nor does his character change.

How does God’s constancy allow us to function as Christians? How does knowing God is dependable allow us to build a life with him year after year? How does the faithfulness of God lead us to rely on his promises about heaven and to act accordingly?

Victor Hamilton explains the structure of this section by saying, “We note again the two subunits within verses 1–17: what man must and must not do (verses 1–7); what God will do (verses 8–17).”[1]

The term “fresh off the boat” makes us think of an immigrant just entering America and being bewildered by culture shock. Perhaps that image can serve as a metaphor for what Noah’s family must have felt emerging from the ark after the awesome flood.

Even more daunting, there had to be uncertainty about what God was planning to do with Noah’s family. Our understanding of their thoughts and feelings is blunted by our knowledge of how much human history has occurred since that day. Look at things from Noah’s vantage point. God had just destroyed all except the tiniest fraction of life on earth. Would they too be found wanting and be destroyed? What incentive could grow in them to build a new society when the threat of divine destruction was so fresh? How would they feel the first time a thunderstorm moved in on them?

God immediately and firmly answers all these concerns with his statement to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:9. Kenneth Mathews says, “God’s declaration is emphatic in the Hebrew construction: ‘Now I—behold—I am establishing my covenant’ (v. 9).”[2] The word “covenant” is used seven times in Genesis 9, and that fact demonstrates its centrality to God’s dealings with Noah and his descendants. The covenant with Noah and his sons provides the stability needed to begin the world again. The Lord had mentioned a future covenant with Noah in Genesis 6:18, and now it is time to establish its details.

But before we examine the details of the covenant, pause to consider that Noah did not know what to expect until the moment the information was needed. We might call this just-in-time revelation. God often does the same with us, calling on us to trust in him even though the future is largely uncertain. In a similar way, Jesus told his disciples: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34).

In Genesis 9:10, the covenant protection is extended to all creatures that still live after leaving the ark. So, the scope of the covenant is as broad as the scope of the destruction declared against the original creation.

Since the mention of “every living creature” immediately reminds Noah of the terrible judgment, God next adds reassurances about divine judgment. In Genesis 9:11, God says, “I confirm my covenant with you,” and the “you” is plural, including every human being who had been on the ark. (English “you” is ambiguous as to singular or plural, a fact you should always remember during Bible study.)

After establishing the scope of the covenant partnership, God makes two powerful promises: (1) he will never again exterminate life with a flood, and (2) he will never again destroy the earth with a flood. Together with the limits God has set on violence, these assurances provide the peace of mind to allow a new start for humankind.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 319.

[2] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996) 408.